industry spotlights

Entrepreneurship & the Alumni Network: Interview with Howie Rhee, Duke University

While a student at Duke, I had the opportunity to work at Duke's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative. Through this experience, I met incredible student and alumni entrepreneurs every day and saw firsthand the invaluable resources offered through the Duke network.

Now, as a member of the Tassl team, I work with countless schools looking to provide many of the same opportunities. One of the biggest challenges they face is connecting students and alumni to the right resources and – most importantly – to each other.

I spoke with Howie Rhee, a key player in the Duke entrepreneurial scene, to learn more about how he leverages the university network to support Duke student and alumni entrepreneurs.

Howie serves as both Managing Director at Fuqua’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Managing Director of Student and Alumni Affairs for Duke I&E.

In these roles, he has created countless connections and advises dozens of alumni and undergraduate and graduate students on their startup ideas, job and internship searches, and entrepreneurial paths every week.

I hope you find his insights as valuable as I did!

Tell us about entrepreneurship at Duke. What kind of opportunities are available for students and alumni?

There are so many opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students as well as alumni! Back when I was a student at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business in 2004, there were a few opportunities, but nothing as robust as we have today. I had to figure out a lot of resources on my own.

I think about my struggles as a student and use that a lens for understanding what current students need:

1. Someone to talk to

I try to make myself really, really, really available to Duke students and alumni. One of my favorite things is when a new student reaches out to me early in their time at Duke. I feel like when we have an early conversation we can really make some adjustments to their entrepreneurial path, so that by the time they graduate I feel like we’ve made a difference.

2. Courses that let you start your own business

Program for Entrepreneurs (P4E) is a program I run with Duke professor Jon Fjeld, which we started in the summer of 2008. It solves a lot of problems I had when I was a Duke MBA student - specifically, having a set of courses where I could focus on starting my own company.

P4E is listed as a class at the business school, but undergraduate and graduate students from other schools and disciplines are able to take this course as well. To enroll in P4E, students have to recruit at least two other students to join their team or company, and at least one of those students must be an MBA student. This structure allows for an interdisciplinary group of students – we have groups that include post-docs and engineers working alongside MBA students and undergraduates.

3. Connections to alumni

One big problem we identified in 2008 was that Duke alums would say, “I’ve been an entrepreneur in San Francisco for 20 years, and never get connected to Duke students or alumni.”

Since that conversation, we've created the DukeGEN network and have made thousands of connections between Duke students, alumni, startups, and investors. We've compiled lists of Duke alums who are now investors, startup attorneys, successful entrepreneurs, or work at startup accelerators. Additionally, we’ve mobilized DukeGEN leaders across major cities to put on regional events that get many people involved in the community, from new entrepreneurs to industry vets.

How has Duke's alumni network helped your students?

There’s a wide spectrum of alumni in the network, and many are very willing to help. I have one alumni venture capitalist who has taken practically every meeting that I’ve sent him, which is around 3-5 meetings per month.

A lot of the ways we leverage the network are in these 1-to-1 introductions.

I tend to gravitate towards those alumni who are providing positive energy, and have the availability and willingness to contribute to our students.

We also do a lot of events. Those can be great, because these many-to-many networking situations provide a lot of opportunity for people to “discover” one another.

I think a combination of those two methods – 1-to-1 targeted introductions, and many-to-many events – has been an effective strategy. We have hosted more than 300 events since 2009 with an aggregate of 15,000 attendees.

We also do something unusual with our Duke Startup Challenge: we have a lot of judges. This year we had over 500 alumni judges! A couple years ago, we broke our competition software because it wasn’t able to handle that many judges and companies.

We also offer a chance for alumni judges to self-identify and say “this startup team is welcome to contact me for help," which has led to lots of interesting connections and mentorships. For example, one startup was working in eyecare, and was randomly assigned to a judge doing eyecare work in Europe, who then offered to chat with the startup outside of the competition.

Are these student–alumni connections valuable to the alumni as well?

Absolutely. I have many alumni, each year, tell me how rewarding it is to work with students. One of our judges in the Duke Startup Challenge talked about how seeing the next generation’s ideas was “good for the soul".

I often hear alumni, even super successful ones, talk about how much they learn from working with students.

Overall, is there variability of the experience of alumni working students? Yes. There are some examples of students being flaky, or unprepared, or just not being “ready” to chat with alumni. However, I think that, as a whole, the alumni-to-student relationships can be meaningful, powerful, and beneficial to both sides. Really, it just involves some coaching and setting expectations on both ends.

What are your Duke entrepreneurs’ biggest needs? How has the Duke alumni network helped to meet them?

The first is funding. For most entrepreneurs, seeking capital is a confusing process, and meeting and engaging with investors is difficult. We aim to help facilitate connections, which mostly means connecting Duke startups to Duke investors where there’s mutual interest.

Another huge need is mentorship. Most people have a vague notion of wanting to receive mentorship, but don’t necessarily know who to reach out to, or how to engage them. From our experience, mentorship is a huge factor that can improve the chances of a startup’s survival. Therefore, connecting Duke entrepreneurs with potential mentors is a large part of what we do. There are many pitfalls in the startup process, and a great mentor can help avoid some of them.

Finally, entrepreneurs need connections.

It’s amazing how many great people are in the Duke network, and yet how difficult it can be to both identify and reach out to folks that could be mutually beneficial to one another.

A lot of my work is helping to create that “connective tissue” so that people with the same interests, and in the same geographies, can get help one another out in the future. Gathering those groups of people together on a regular basis has helped many of them find co-founders, customers, jobs, and more. I know one Duke alum who met his co-founder at an event like this, and they raised over $15 million and sold their company recently.

Do you try to provide any structure to the mentorships you foster?

I’m biased for mentorship to be open-ended. As such, I focus a lot on the mentor matching and less on the structure of the mentorship itself.

In terms of the length of time, I think that really depends on both parties being ready to invest in the relationship, which is highly variable. So, I tend to stay away from trying to predict which relationship will be long term. Instead, I hope that when all is said and done, the right combinations of people will stick it out.

How have you seen Duke entrepreneurs most effectively leverage the Duke network when starting their own company?

There are many stories of Duke entrepreneurs using the Duke network, and everyone navigates the process in a different way.

The most ideal alumni experience is a Duke entrepreneur who used the university as his first customer, received investment from Duke alumni, regularly finds Duke students and alumni to work for his company, and now offers to give back and help Duke students.

Why should an entrepreneurial Duke alum stay connected to Duke I&E?

Is it possible to be successful while not being connected to Duke? Absolutely. However, I would argue that being a part of Duke’s startup ecosystem can greatly benefit Duke alumni.

Being a part of a startup often means that you have to 1. Learn many new things, and 2. Get help from many people. The Duke network can help with both of those things.

Rather than teach yourself how to do something, imagine that you are connected to experts that can guide you. Rather than do all of the work yourself, imagine that you can reach out to others who will spend time and energy to support you.

In startups, your time and attention are often your most valuable resource. And the opportunity cost of spending your attention on things that you could learn from or delegate to others is a truly high cost.

I occasionally meet with entrepreneurs who have been in a bit of a networking 'vacuum' and a lot of times, the thing they are stuck on is something that could be easily solved by others in the Duke network.

So, I would argue that being a part of the network can actually reduce your overall costs of time and attention and increase your probability of success. My hope for entrepreneurs is they will reach out to others early on so they can be efficient with their time.

How have your own alma maters contributed to your success in the entrepreneurial world?

Being around so many entrepreneurial people at MIT is what inspired me to start my own company while I was an undergraduate student there. To me, MIT is a lighthouse that can guide many people in the right direction. Even now as an alum and a Duke employee, I always feel proud when I read about the amazing things that MIT entrepreneurs are doing in the world.

There are many ways that Duke has contributed since receiving my MBA here, and as such there are many, many people that I have to thank, too many for me to name here.

Ultimately, as an employee of Duke since 2007 working solely on entrepreneurship, I’ve had the benefit of building an ecosystem on an amazing platform, in an environment that has been supportive of my efforts. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be in my position at this time in Duke’s history. And ultimately, my success, if there is any, is because of the luck of being tied to such an amazing institution.

What advice do you have to entrepreneurs looking to build out their alumni network?

Be bold and put yourself out there. Don’t be shy about cold emailing folks, even the CEOs of successful companies.

Many thanks to Howie Rhee for sharing his insights! Let us know how your network supports student and alumni entrepreneurs!